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Press releases Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Trial of human rights defenders in Greece for helping migrants

13 January 2023

Refugees and migrants are seen on a dinghy during a rescue operation at open sea between the Turkish coast and the Greek island of Lesbos, February 8, 2016. © REUTERS/Giorgos Moutafis

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Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: Liz Throssell



On Tuesday, a  long-awaited trial of 24 human rights defenders charged over their role in helping to rescue migrants in distress at sea began in Lesvos in Greece.

Trials like this are deeply concerning because they criminalize life-saving work and set a dangerous precedent. Indeed, there has already been a chilling effect, with human rights defenders and humanitarian organisations forced to halt their human rights work in Greece and other EU countries. 

We reiterate our call for charges against the 24 to be dismissed. The charges are in connection with their actions in rescuing migrants at sea and include several alleged misdemeanours related to the facilitation of migrant smuggling.

Those facing trial were all members of, or volunteers with, a Greek NGO called Emergency Response Centre International or ERCI, which helped more than 1,000 people to reach safety, and provided survivors with medical and other assistance on the Greek island of Lesvos from 2016 to 2018.

Since then, ERCI has been compelled to close its operations, while the defendants have been facing the prospect of going on trial for more than  four years. 

Saving lives and providing humanitarian assistance should never be criminalized or prosecuted. Such actions are, quite simply, a humanitarian and human rights imperative.

The UN Human Rights Office also has long-standing concerns that anti-smuggling legislation in a number of European countries is being used to criminalize both migrants and those who assist them. Addressing migrant smuggling ultimately relies on enhancing safe pathways for regular migration.

Despite the critical need for life-saving assistance in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, where nearly 500 migrants have died or gone missing since 2021 according to the International Organization for Migration,  there are currently no civil search and rescue organizations operating in Greece. 

We note that in proceedings this morning in Mytilini on Lesvos, where the trial is taking place, that the prosecution has recommended the annulment of some of the charges.

We would welcome such developments but reiterate our call for all charges against all defendants to be dropped.


For more information and media requests, please contact:
In Geneva
Liz Throssell + 41 22 917 9296 / [email protected] or
Ravina Shamdasani - + 41 22 917 9169 / [email protected]or
Jeremy Laurence +  +41 22 917 9383 / [email protected] or
Marta Hurtado - + 41 22 917 9466 / [email protected]

In Nairobi
Seif Magango - +254 788 343 897 / [email protected]

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